A federal judge last week dismissed the City of Santa Monica’s lawsuit challenging ownership of Santa Monica Airport (SMO). In the ruling issued Feb. 13, a federal judge opined it was too early for Santa Monica to assert any constitutional violations.
He also ruled the City was barred by the statute of limitations to claim it has title or ownership of the airport property instead of the federal government.
The ruling was issued by Judge John Walter about one month after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) filed in the U.S. District Court (Central District) a Motion to Dismiss Santa Monica’s lawsuit seeking quiet title to SMO.
In the lawsuit, Santa Monica sought to prevent the FAA “from interfering with the City’s … right to titled, and unfettered use of the Airport Property as it sees fit.”
The City also disputed the FAA claim it was required by the federal government to operate SMO in perpetuity and whether the United States had any ownership right in the airport land.
“(Santa Monica) claims that the Instrument of Transfer could not possibly allow the United
States to take title to, or assert ownership of, the Airport Property in the event that the City ceases to operate SMO as an airport because United States never owned the land,” Walter wrote in his ruling about the federal lawsuit filed Oct. 31.
Walter ruled the City of Santa Monica’s claim for ownership and title of SMO was outside the 12-year statute of limitations. The Instrument of Transfer signed between City Hall and the FAA should have given Santa Monica notice of the federal government’s claimed interest in the airport property in 1948. Accordingly, the window of time to file an ownership claim with the court closed in 1960.
The City of Santa Monica claimed it was not on notice of the FAA’s ownership interest in SMO because the federal government never had title to the airport in the first place. Since there was no ownership interest to begin with, Santa Monica’s attorneys argued, how could an Instrument of Transfer or any other document or ruling ever give the United States government any ownership interest in SMO.
It was Santa Monica’s hope this argument would give City Hall complete ownership over SMO, therefore allowing the City full control to determine the use of the airport land once the agreement with the FAA expires in July 2015.
“The Court concludes that the use of the term ‘title’ in the Instrument of Transfer would have, or at least should have, alerted a reasonable landowner that the government claimed an interest in the title to the land,” Walter wrote in his ruling, refuting Santa Monica’s arguments. “Moreover, even if the Instrument of Transfer did not provide notice that the United States claimed an interest in the title to the land, it certainly put the City on notice that the United States claimed a substantial property interest in the land sufficient to create a cloud on title.”
Santa Monica’s attorneys also claimed the federal government abandoned its interest in SMO, therefore preventing the statute of limitations from running. Walter disagreed. He pointed out the 1984 Settlement Agreement between Santa Monica and the FAA explicitly required the city to operate SMO as an airport until July 1, 2015, but no specific instructions of what is to happen after that date.
The lack of explicit instructions of what to do after July 1, 2015, Walter stated, “certainly do not constitute a clear and unequivocal abandonment” of the United States’ ownership interest in SMO.
Beyond the title dispute, City Hall alleged the FAA violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Specifically, the City alleged its requirement by the FAA to operate SMO in perpetuity “amounts to a taking or regulatory taking by the United States without just compensation.”
Walter agreed with the FAA’s contention in its Motion to Dismiss that Santa Monica was premature in making a Takings Clause allegation because the City had yet to seek any form of compensation for an alleged tanking in the first place.
Under federal law, any party invoking the Takings Clause to defend against the government taking property away from them must first seek compensation.
The federal ruling also dismissed the City’s allegations of Due Process and Tenth Amendment violation, stating Santa Monica has yet to resolve its intention to close SMO in 2015.
“(Santa Monica) has not made any recommendation or taken a position as to whether it should cease operating SMO as an airport in 2015. Accordingly, the City’s claims rest upon contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all,” Walter ruled.
In light of Walter’s ruling last week, a few groups advocating SMO’s closure released positions or statements suggesting the next steps City Hall should take to determine the airport’s future.
"The real issue is not who has the legal right to say what happens with Santa Monica Airport’s future, but who will take responsibility to curtail the toxic air and noise pollution at an airport that has runways practically up to the front doors of long-time residents in both Santa Monica and Los Angeles,” Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Residents Against Air Pollution stated. “The community has been put in harm’s way for more than two decades while the City of Santa Monica and the FAA point fingers at each other.”
Airport2Park.org, the coalition of residents and groups campaigning to convert SMO into a park, said through its spokesman last week’s federal ruling has not dampened its mission.
“This isn’t going to stop Santa Monica getting its park,” Frank Gruber, the group’s spokesman, stated. “The decision was on narrow procedural grounds, and doesn’t alter the fact that the people of Santa Monica bought this land through a park bond a century ago. We are confident that when the dust has settled, it will be the wonderful green space.”
Others requested City Hall to forego appealing Walter’s decision but instead end aviation leases and fuel sales as part of a “Starvation Strategy.”
Meanwhile, City Hall stated it is reviewing its options and the City Council will receive advice on how to move forward from outside counsel at its Feb. 25 meeting.
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